Wednesday, 28 May 2014

About 'THE BOX'

Having been out a lot playing live music with the bands I'm in over the last few days,  I thought I would make this post about music.

When I play,  people are often intrigued by my cajón! Quite a lot of people have never heard of, seen, or listened to a cajón! 'What's that?',  they say, 'How can you get that 'box' to sound like that?' or,  'I thought it was someone playing a drum kit but then I saw it was you sitting on a 'box'', or even it looks like a 'speaker'.

So for those who are interested..... let me tell you a bit about cajóns!

'The Drum Kit in a Box'

The word cajón (pronounced caahone or caahon) is Spanish in origin.The word means crate or box or drawer. And this is exactly what a cajón is, it's a wooden box which is played as a drum. The modern cajón is often used to accompany the acoustic guitar and is popular in Andean, Cuban, and Flamenco music. The cajón is also becoming rapidly popular in blues, pop, rock, funk, world music, fusion, jazz, etc. It is often referred to as a "drum kit in a box".


The cajón was developed during the periods of slavery in coastal Perú, where it is associated with several Afro-Peruvian genres. The instrument reached a peak in popularity by 1850, and by the end of the 19th century cajón players were experimenting with the design of the instrument by bending some of the planks in the cajón's body to alter the instrument's patterns of sound vibration. After slavery the cajón was spread to a much larger audience including Criollos.

Given that the cajón comes from slave musicians in the Spanish colonial Americas, there are two complementary origin theories for the instrument. It is possible that the drum is a direct descendant of a number of boxlike musical instruments from west and central Africa, especially Angola and the Antilles. These instruments were adapted by Peruvian slaves from the Spanish shipping crates at their disposal.

Another theory is that slaves simply used boxes as musical instruments to subvert Spanish colonial bans on music in predominantly African areas. In this way, cajóns could easily be disguised as seats or stools, thus avoiding identification as musical instruments. In all likelihood it is a combination of these factors - African origins and Spanish suppression of slave music - that led to the cajón's creation.

Spanish flamenco guitar player Paco de Lucía brought to Spain a cajón formerly owned by Peruvian percussionist Caitro Soto in 1977 with the purpose of using it as a more reliable rhythmic base in Flamenco - you can see Paco in action with his cajón players in this video.

Construction and sound

Since it's early beginnings the design of the the cajon has not changed all that much. From the most modern up to date cajons with built in amplification and adjustable snare and bass tones to the most humble box crate, the cajon is still a hollow box usually made from plywood. The cajon has a thin layer of plywood on one the bottom of a drawer.....and thicker wood to the sides and top, usually the back (or sides) of the cajon has a sound hole, and simply beating on different parts of the front surface will give different sounds. Some cajons are built with more than one playing surface and of different wood to give different effects.

A bass drum sound is achieved by hitting the middle of the playing surface and higher toned sound can be achieved by hitting the box closer to the top.  So a cajón box drum can be played to get a similar sound one would a bass drum and toms and when fitted with snare wires effects similar to a snare drum,  but instead of needing a transit van to transport a full drum kit, a cajón packs into one easily carried bag.This makes the box drum cajón a very versatile and easily transportable instrument, which also as a bonus, provides me with a seat when there are none!! Below I'm accompanying Jez in our acoustic duo Silurian.

I've been playing my Meinl cajón (pictured here) for just over a year. Its front plate is made from Bubinga wood which I've since reinforced (with the help of Richard Southwell) with washer sunk screws to distribute the beat load and prevent it splitting, as I do whack it some when playing full on with the band. It has a foot pedal which allows you to adjust the sound of the snare rattle, but I actually very rarely use this as the snare sound is usually a bonus! I play it with my hands and also some nylon brushes depending on the type of rhythm needed. I also add in some finger shakers/ jingles, foot tambourine, a hi-hat and crash cymbal when playing with the band for added effects. When mic'd up properly so I can be heard above the electric guitars and keyboard it can produce a pretty impressive level of sound!

Here I am playing with the guys in a cover version of 'TheThrill is Gone' with Twysted River

As you can see, I am in no way an expert, I started playing percussion about two years ago as a way of joining in with Jez when playing guitar but soon became hooked on 'making music'. I have only had a cajón for just over a year and still have a lot to learn about playing this fantastically versatile instrument - yes I believe my cajón is an 'instrument' and it isn't 'just a box'!

Due to lots of band bookings and other commitments this summer my, Usk Chirps blog posts may be a little less regular for the next few months so please forgive me for that. I will be collecting material and taking photos and come the Autumn, when we become corralled inside on cold, dark evenings, no doubt my posting frequency will rise again!

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